Landscape & characters: Figuring by Maria Popova



Source: https://www.vanityfair.com/london/2019/02/figuring-maria-popova-book-review

Every Sunday when my inbox brightens with an alert ''New Mail from Brain Pickings''- it is always the highlight of my day. To say that Ms. Popova's curated newseltters serve as a healing potion to the otherwise deprived heart will be an understatement.


Maria Popova is well known for her blog Brain Pickings where she meditates on various ideas ranging from art to solitutude to letter writing. She has spent most of her adult life reading in libraries, shuffling through letters and anthologies. Her book ''Figuring'' had to be an extension of her decade long work on Brain Picking. It did not disappoint.


The book is a non-linear historical telling of many artists and scientists who lived in 19th and 20th century USA. While the book begins with Johannes Keppler, it moves on to narrate the stories of women such as Maria Mitchell, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Browning, Harriet Hosmer and Emily Dickison. Popova refrains from labelling the women as queer or bisexual or lesbians, because:


...in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The lables we give to the loves which are capable-varied and vigourously transfigured from one kind into another and back again- can't begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them. - Maria Popova, Figuring

The book is an enquiry into the interwoven lives these women lived even when they missed each other by few decades How they opened gates for each other, unkowingly and changed the way women brave the world of arts and science.


This is a long book, not advised for people who like reading shorter, quicker narratives. Popova takes her time and sensitively deals with all her characters, giving them time to flourish into their own, sometimes imagining some parts of their inner monologues or evening strolls. While the book is based on historical writing done on these women (and Keppler), what Popova brings to the table is a view of those 150 years from a zoomed out perspective. You can see how many of these women crossed paths and thrived in another's shadow.


In this book we see the time before sufferagate movement, we see women building each other and some men. Waldo emerson, David Thoreau and Giovanni Angelo Ossoli are some of the men who live with and celebrate these women while they break barriers and defy conventions.


If Japanese philoshopher Karatani Kojin's theory- ''Discovery of Landscape'' interests you, this would be a good book to pick. The conflict of landscape with changing roles in the narrative (being primary, secondary and tertiary character in the same book) is evident. The book breaks away from the literature we have grown up reading- a hero and their journey. Throughout the pages of Figuring you witness landscape becoming characters and characters fading into landscape as we move ahead and sometimes back in time of American history.


Popova ends with my favourite paragraph of the book:

....I will die.
You will die.
The atoms that huddled for a cosmic blink around the shadow of a self will return to the seas that made us.What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.

Figuring attempts collecting the stardust and seeds for us to take ahead to newer generations and look at them with fresh eyes.

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